To many it was a surprising announcement--especially after hearing Iraq President Saddam Hussein's doleful if residually defiant address earlier in the day over Radio Baghdad. But Moscow's statement that Iraq has accepted an eight-point proposal for withdrawal from Kuwait was the first significant sign that further bloodshed might be averted and the region returned to a reasonable prewar state.
But our hopes must not get the better of our judgment, which is why the White House was wise Thursday evening to indicate that it had serious questions about the Moscow proposal and that in fact President Bush enumerated them in a telephone conversation with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of the plan.
We have some questions, too:
1. Moscow described Baghdad as agreeing to a "full and unconditional" withdrawal. If so, then why were conditions attached?
2. The proposal calls for the ending of economic sanctions after two-thirds of the Iraqi army has left Kuwait. Would not the United Nations Security Council be well within its rights to insist on full withdrawal before lifting sanctions?
3. The proposal calls for the lifting of all other punitive conditions as a result of the withdrawal. But is that not a matter more appropriately left to the Security Council after the immediate wrongdoing--the invasion--has been redressed by complete and unconditional withdrawal?
4. The Moscow proposal fails to mention a methodology for discussing such issues. Should the United Nations Security Council be comfortable with Gorbachev as the go-between? Is he a plausible, honest broker? Does not Moscow have its own interests that may not be those of the Security Council as a whole?
5. The proposal leaves ill-defined the question of Iraq's remaining military might. Where will all its tanks and planes wind up--all happily together again and ready to fight?
6. The proposal suggests that immediately after the cease-fire, which is to precede the withdrawal, all prisoners of war will be exchanged. What are the guarantees that the ex-Iraqi POWs won't be inhumanely dealt with?
7. The proposal will strike many people as a way out of the war, and many others as a way for Saddam Hussein to remain in power and remain a significant military force. What is the appropriate response for Washington if Israel denounces the plan and suggests it will need to consider its options unilaterally?
8. The proposal will strike many in the Arab--and non-Arab--world as reasonable. If the United States rejects it, and a ground war ensues, what are the long-term political consequences for the United States in the region? And would non-Arab coalition partners like Italy cash out and leave the coalition?
9. The proposal will strike some of our Arab allies as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Yet, if we do accept it, will Hussein have won the political war--by standing up to the "Western Satan" while still staying in power?
10. The proposal says nothing about many other issues, such as reparations for Kuwait and future relations between Baghdad and Kuwait. How do we, in effect, guarantee that accepting the Soviet proposal will lead to a more stable Persian Gulf?
Having said all this, there is no question that the door is finally open, and a way out of the impending ground war has been pointed to. The White House now will have to go about answering the hard questions--for itself, for its allies and for the world. But it should be said--emphatically--that Baghdad's concession, if it can be called that, arises not out of the goodness of Hussein's heart. It is a product of the tremendous job that the coalition's armed forces have done in the Gulf. Because of them, the Iraqis have blinked. It is the work of soldiers as much as anyone else that finally has given peace a chance.